Thursday, 6 December 1990
Seanad Éireann Debate
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I have notice from Senator John A. Murphy that he proposes to raise the need for the Minister for Education to extend higher education grants to the small minority of students who, while not meeting formal academic requirements, are admitted to third level institutions on the grounds of mature years.
I have had a life-long interest in adult education generally. It seems to me that the people who come late to education are a very special breed and in general  they perform extremely well. They have developed maturity and an ability to pick out what is significant in what they study. Generally, they are people of very fine character as well, so I am making the proposition that they deserve well of us.
Let me clarify the category I am talking about. There are mature students and mature students. There are people who did their leaving certificate or Matriculation examination perhaps five or ten years ago who were unable to go to college at that time — I am speaking of course about all third level institutions and am using the word “college” in general — because of personal circumstances or because they were not of that way of thinking at the time and then five or ten years later they decide to take up their Matriculation option and go to college. All things being equal, these people qualify for a third level grant. If they got their Leaving Certificate or Matriculation in 1980 and they go to college in 1990 they get a grant but, unfortunately, the grant they get is determined by the eligibility criteria of 1980 and not 1990 and that is a particular grievance.
However, I am not referring to those people. Although they have a grievance they are in receipt of some kind of financial assistance. I am concerned about the mature students who never got to Leaving Certificate or Matriculation. Some of them may not have gone to secondary school at all. I recall two cases of people of primary education who came into this category. what happens is that they apply to the college authorities when they have reached the mature age point, which is 24 years, in the October of proposed entry, and they say they do not have the Matriculation or Leaving Certificate but can offer evidence that they are a serious student. In some cases they might have participated in voluntary work in their community or perhaps have carried out investigation of local history or that kind of thing, although they have no formal qualifications. On the basis of what they can offer and on their promise, as it were, the college authorities agree to accept them as students even though they do not have the formal Matriculation or Leaving Certificate.
 It must be pointed out that some of them are rejected as well. Not everyone over the age of 24 who has not had the formal qualifications is accepted. I have seen such applications rejected. They are carefully considered and, in some cases, there is a question of interviewing these applicants. The point I want to make is that the college accepts them but only after careful consideration. In my view they have fulfilled a particular criterion by the mere fact that the college has accepted them.
Unfortunately these people do not qualify for any financial assistance because they do not have the two honours which is now the basic criterion for financial grant and they are in a financial limbo. There are not very many of them. My information is that in University College Cork, just taking my own college, no more than about 70 places are set aside for mature students and some of those places are not taken up. It would be an interesting exercise to do a nationwide tally of the mature students in our third level institutions. I am sure their numbers are quite inconsiderable and, therefore, any costs involved would not be great.
I said they deserve very well of us. When third level colleges decide to accept a student of mature years, their progress is watched and nine times out of ten they do extremely well. They vindicate the trust placed in them. They are strongly motivated, critical, mature and fine people. They show considerable courage in coming back to college. There are certain psychological difficulties in mingling with people half their age and there are other problems of adjustment they have to make. They deserve our support on those grounds as well. We are talking here about second chance education and a fundamental sense of justice. We are talking about giving cothrom ná Féinne to this small group of people.
I am aware, and the Minister is aware, that a short time ago in Dáil Éireann the Minister for Education was questioned on this matter. It was essentially the same question I am asking now but it was a written question and it got a written answer. I refer to the Official Report of the Dáil dated 31 October 1990, Volume  402, No. 3, column 759-760. Her answer in effect was that there are two criteria for financial assistance: one is educational attainment and the other is that you satisfy the eligibility criteria. She said if these students do not have the actual formal educational attainment, namely two honours in the Leaving Certificate, why do they not go back to school and get their Leaving Certificate and then go on to college and they will have their grants? With respect, that is a very unsatisfactory and unrealistic answer. It is tough enough on these students to seize their second chance and go to college without imposing upon them the very onerous requirement that they do two years at Leaving Certificate level. My submission is that it is not academically necessary for them to do that because the college, by accepting them, has indicated that it marks their attainment of that criteria.
Professor Murphy: Mature students who did their Leaving Certificate or Matriculation, even then or 15 years ago, qualify for third level grants. These people go back to college irrespective of their personal circumstances and in many cases it will be a struggle for them to do so. There is no other source of financial assistance for them and, I think morally they are entitled to support.
Just to clarify the position, those students are taken in to third level colleges without the academic qualifications necessary and that clearly implies that they are coming from a severely disadvantaged background of one type or another?
Professor Murphy: Yes, some of them would come from a menial position perhaps and they want to improve themselves. They have no formal secondary schooling but the college authorities, considering all their circumstances and some evidence of ability and performance, decide to admit them as mature students.
Professor Murphy: There is some provision for reduced fees. It is a small fund. They have to make further application and a special case for that. My submission is that they are entitled to more than that.
Mr. F. Fahey: I take the point the Senator made. Where there is a small number of students coming from a background with a special set of circumstances, we should perhaps try to look at the possibility of responding to their needs in a positive way. I will mention first the negative side of doing so. If there were a large number of students and it had a major financial connotation, that would make such a decision more difficult. The second difficulty would be that if we were to create a precedent of this nature, we would find significant numbers of people coming forward who would claim equal treatment, and rightly so.
The main difficulty for the Department would be the financial implications, no matter how small, of making a decision like this. Having said that, I undertake to discuss with the Minister the possibility of implementing a proposal along the  lines suggested by Senator Murphy. I know the Minister has been most anxious to try and accommodate them and all the credit to her. She has succeeded in enabling people from poorer backgrounds to go to college who otherwise would not have the opportunity to do so. I know she wishes to give every possible opportunity to people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to college. I will be happy to discuss with her the proposals made by the Senator and perhaps carry out a study of the numbers involved and the difficulties with which they have to contend.
I accept that the regulation at present is that they must obtain the Leaving Certificate. However, it may be possible to look at that provided we do not create a situation where we would have a stream of people coming along. If we can establish a special category which would remain at a certain level, I will undertake the examine it and request the Minister to look at it favourably. Such an initiative  would have to be taken in association with the colleges involved. Therefore, were the Minister to agree to a proposal along those lines it would be on the basis that the colleges would be agreeable to row in with a lower fee level or whatever the case might be.
Senator Murphy's proposal is an admirable one with which I agree. Whatever we can do to make third level education accessible to our most disadvantaged — and I would think that is the most important term in today's short debate — we should certainly endeavour to do. I undertake to do that with the Minister.
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